Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Infantry" by Ernest H. Hart

The earth was desolate. On the horizon the deadly toadstool growths of atom bombs hung in the air, the only clouds in a dead sky. Metal gleamed fitfully under a hazy sun, the metal of giant doors set into the earth and pock-mocked with the fury of an atom-age war.

Beyond the thick, lead insulated doors wide steps led downward into the earth, into the cities and states, connected by long underground highways, the warrens into which men had fled when atomic war had struck. The cities looked as cities had always looked except that above them was no vault of sky to send its warming rays of sun, its gentle rains, its scents of growing things, its lover's moon. High above arched a manmade sky of steel and concrete and lead, and beyond this stretched the limitless tons of rock and earth.

People walked the streets with purpose, all in uniform, men and women alike, all with their military chores to do. And in each city, the core of its existence, loomed the military academy where people were trained to fight this atom-age war with which they lived daily. Above all others in importance in the city were the military instructors, men who had fought in other wars and taught the elements of survival of attack and defense.

On the steps of the military academy in the city with which we are concerned the old Sergeant sat. He was old even for this era when the miracles of medicine equaled the technological advances in atomic science and man could live long beyond his limit of a few years ago. Young officer candidates grouped around the old Sergeant listening with amused tolerance to this old man's tales of other wars, World War II, Korea.

"The Old Man is imbecilic." They would mutter, and smile pityingly.

But they liked to hear his stories of those old wars when men fought upon the surface and individual heroism was still a part of the world's culture. How simple those wars of the past, how uncomplicated. This old fool had, in those days, been a Sergeant. Today he would not have the intelligence to rise above Private Third Grade.

The old man gestured and smirked and spoke of his wars and there was in his eyes a faraway look and always, at the end of the stories, would come the remark which they waited for, the sentence that was always good for a rousing laugh. The old man would end and say, "And finally it came down to the infantry! Yup, no war has ever been won without the Infantry!"

Then they would howl with laughter as the Old Man lowered his nodding head. Infantry ... a word not in the vocabulary of Atom-Age War, a military arm extinct. And so they suffered, the Old Man because he brought them laughter at the ridiculous and laughter of any kind was a precious commodity in the cities below the earth.

The old man lapsed into silence. A bell rang, and the young students, still laughing at the old man's fantasy, filed into the building to their classes. The old Sergeant dozed on the steps. Occasionally he would stir and mutter and, if one were close, the word "Infantry" could be caught.

Later another bell rang. Students poured from the academy. The Old Sergeant shook himself and rose and shuffled along with the crowd heading all in one direction, toward the great metal doors that opened to the surface. They waited there, forming thick lines on each side of the doors, leaving a wide aisle between. They waited and watched and stirred until the shuffling of countless, heavy footsteps could be heard. Then they grew still and silent, waiting.

Into view a column ponderously moved. Huge, metal, man-made creatures, man-like Robots, sheathed in lead and carrying atomic arms. They moved steadily toward the doors with massive purpose as they did each day. Then the great doors swung open and the huge army of pseudo-men marched out onto the earth that only they could tread, to do strange and silent battle with the Robot army of the enemy under the sickly, mushroom clouded sky.

Solemnly the people turned as the doors closed behind the last metal man. They would throng here again when the bell rang, the battle was over and the Robot army returned, and their lips would move as they counted the survivors of that unseen, awful fray. For each person knew the percentage of loss beyond which lay defeat or victory and so could tally the progress of their war and the closeness of either success or failure.

The old man lingered, looking at the closed doors. He nodded his head and chuckled turning toward the academy in the distance. They laughed, always they laughed. But now, each day at this time, he laughed. War was war, he thought, and there is no changing the facts. And his eyes were wise as he thought of the columns of marching Robots.

"Yup, no war was ever won without the Infantry!" He muttered to himself.

He chuckled, he laughed, a good laugh, for it was the last laugh, and he turned away from the doors and shuffled down the street to the looming military academy.

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